Kevin Young’s ‘The Hungry Ear’ up for a listen at Restaurant Eugene


The author dinner series at Restaurant Eugene has consistently combined the refined written word with culinary art. But next week’s event on Monday, November 19, with renowned poet Kevin Young strikes a particularly intuitive tone for those who regard dining as an opportunity to experience something lyrical.

Chef Linton Hopkins’ menu will be inspired by Young’s latest anthology, The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink, which features 150 works from Pablo Neruda to Natasha Trethewey. The collection reminds us of the many roles that food plays in our lives—that food and eating can be symbolic and practical, that it evokes memories and inspires new conversations. Young, who serves as Emory University’s Atticus Haygood professor of English and creative writing, has culled the many dimensions of food-inspired poetry into a delightful volume that encourages readers to reflect and share. Just like a good meal ought to do.

I’m enjoying The Hungry Ear—there’s applesauce and Coke, grapefruit and chicken! What’s your process as a curator when finding and selecting pieces for an anthology? In many ways it starts with all the things you like and love. Poems you know or poems you’re familiar with. But then you also have to—thinking of food especially—try new things and be willing to look at recent publications. I was trying to get a contemporary take on food. I wanted to capture a range of foods from blackberries to beef and look at food in a holistic way—how people grow food, how people cook food, how they eat and drink, and how poets wrote about those things.

You have poems featuring food from all times of the year, that are consumed at various times of the day and night. I particularly love Beer for Breakfast by Frank O’Hara. I would have liked a breakfast-only anthology, but I just had to get some other meals in there.

In the dedication you acknowledge your mother. You write she taught you “to cook and to listen.” She’s from Louisiana—what did you learn to cook from her? Whatever cooking I do is taken from her; especially comfort food. There’s no one dish I could point to. I grew up eating okra, potato salad, sweet potato pie, and greens. Also Creole-style food like cracklin and Andouille sausage. My mom is an excellent cook of gumbo. It’s really amazing. I’ve made it before but I don’t even try to order that out in the world. It’s not worth it. Though I did have an amazing Andouille seafood stew just last night, which they took pains to avoid calling a gumbo. My father was a very good cook—or he became one later in life. He cooked differently than my mother—dirtying every pot in the house, and nothing would come out at the same time. But it tasted great.

Where’d you get that “amazing” seafood stew from? The fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance at Taqueria del Sol. (Editor’s note: guest chefs at the Piggy Bank dinner Young attended were Amy Tornquist of Watts Grocery in Durham, North Carolina, and Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.)

At next Monday’s author dinner, you’ll read from The Hungry Ear? I’ll read some, that’s the idea. And Linton Hopkins, chef-owner of Eugene has a poem in the anthology. So I think he’ll be reading, too. He’s actually a great reader of other people’s poems. He talks a lot about how poetry, cooking, and creating a menu are related, so I’m eager to see what he does with the menu inspired by this book.

Where do you love to eat out around town? We like almost everything in Decatur. Leon’s, Taqueria del Sol, Cakes and Ale. It’s one of the reasons we like living here.

 I heard you own a Big Green Egg. This is true.

How’s that going? Have any masterpieces come forth? I like cooking on it a lot. No masterpieces. But we do still have a pit in the backyard where we’ve done a couple whole hogs.

Like—really, in your yard? Yep, in the pit.

In an AJC article a couple years back you mentioned you were on the hunt for fried chicken as good as or better than your aunt’s. Have you found it yet? I used to love the fried chicken at Watershed, but it’s been a while since I’ve been.

Are you ever surprised by the depth of content that you find when putting together an anthology on a specific topic? I was amazed at the amount of poets who consider blackberries, which is what starts and finishes the volume. It makes sense—it’s a primal eating experience, a visceral one. It was great to have these poems from Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyakaa, and even Sylvia Plath all talking about blackberries.

Of all the berries, why do you think blackberries were so popular? People have that experience of picking them fresh, they grow wild and plentiful. It’s something you do as a child, and I think it has a lot to do with memory and also immediacy. I also found with many poets if they had one food poem they had many food poems. Like it’s addictive to write about food. I can relate.

The Restaurant Eugene author dinner with Kevin Young is Monday, November 19 at 6:30 p.m. The evening includes a cocktail reception and four-course dinner with wine pairings inspired by poems from The Hungry Ear. Cost is $105 per person, including a signed copy of the anthology. For reservations or more information, call 404-355-0321.

Photo by Ayla Christman